Claudia Wells played Jennifer Parker, Marty McFly’s girlfriend, in the first Back to the Future film. In recent years, Wells has been focusing on her clothing store, Armani Wells, and her charitable work with Kids In The Spotlight. Decades ago Wells decided to not appear in the Back to the Future sequels so that she could support her mother who was greatly ill at the time.
I spoke to Claudia Wells about the impact Back to the Future has had on her life, Elizabeth Shue and the work she is doing today.
You can stay up to date with Claudia on her website www.claudiawells.com.
Do you remember the Back to the Future audition process at all?
I remember everything. I had one audition for the film and that was it. I think that had something to do with the fact that I almost got the starring role in Goonies, Gremlins and Young Sherlock Holmes. They were all Amblin projects. By the time I auditioned for Back to the Future they all knew me.
When I auditioned for Back to the Future it was at Amblin. When I walked in the room there was Bob Gale, Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, Neil Canton, Jane Feinberg, Mike Fenton, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy. There was an actor there who was on his eleventh call back for Marty McFly. My audition scene was the scene that Lea Thompson did in the car at the dance’s parking lot. I was in the audition for an hour and a half or two hours. Steven Spielberg was the one who talked to me the whole time. It was a great time. I was so young and I loved it. I only knew I was auditioning for the girlfriend.
You auditioned using the lines for Lorraine (Lea Thompson)?
Yes. They wouldn’t let me read the script and they wouldn’t let me know about anything. They gave me the scene in advance to study. It was very secretive. They wouldn’t tell me the story or anything. Steven talked to me the whole time. It was a fun and terrific experience—Steven and I talking and having a great time.
When you initially got the part as Jennifer in Back to the Future you had to give it up shortly after. Can you talk about that a little bit?
I had done Off The Rack with Edward Asner, Eileen Brennan and Dennis Haysbert. It was a TV show for ABC and we finished the pilot…and then I got Back to the Future. I got Back to the Future when Eric Stoltz was Marty. That was a huge secret for 20 years—none of us said anything about it.
Off The Rock got picked up to be a TV series and it was going to go at the same time I was supposed to be Jennifer. ABC would not share me with Amblin. It was my first legal commitment and I had to back out of being Jennifer. It was not up to me. I had no choice in the matter. Even Ed Asner was like, “Let the kid do the Spielberg movie.” But…ABC would not let me go and they didn’t want to share me.
I didn’t feel awkward about it. I remember sitting in my living room when my mom came in and told me I was released from Back to the Future. I just believed in fate and that everything happens for a reason. I did 6 episodes of Off The Rack and they recast my role in Back to the Future. Things didn’t work out with Eric Stoltz and the girl they cast as Jennifer was too tall to be Michael J. Fox’s girlfriend. So they recast me and I got to be Jennifer. I believed in fate and I got my part back.
What was the limited time you got to spend with Eric Stoltz like?
He was great. We had fun. We shot pictures together that were supposed to be in Marty’s wallet. They arranged for us to meet at a function and we hung out. We had some phone calls.
I knew Eric prior because we took one of Stella Adler’s last master classes that she taught. We took acting classes together when he first came to Hollywood to be an actor. I was so impressed with his acting. He’s brilliant. He was very method during the time we spent together for Back to the Future. He always called me Jennifer.
Was his take on Marty McFly a lot different than Michael J. Fox’s?
I never worked with Eric on set. I just knew him from hanging out at functions and from talking to him on the phone. I can’t speak to that at all. I was never with him on set. I never did a single line with him. We never went over any scenes or anything. We did a day of pictures. I posted one of the pictures online because someone found them and sent me one. We took those pictures on the backlot of Universal Studios. There wasn’t even a tour yet when we took them. This was way before the Universal Studios tour exisited.
You said earlier that you weren’t allowed to talk about Stoltz being fired for 20 years. Did they want you to keep that a secret?
That wasn’t official news.
How did you view Jennifer as a character?
I gave Jennifer a complete background. I had notes on Jennifer. How she did in school. Who her parents were. Who she was as a person. How she grew up. I had a whole background on her as a human being. She was a full and complete person to me. She and I had a lot in common. Our natural personality traits were very similar. I was shy and innocent like she was. She was based on who I was in a lot of ways.
You used yourself as an inspiration for Jennifer?
Completely. Everyone that knew me in high school knew I was very innocent.
The filmmakers have talked about not having sequels planned when the first film ended. The cliffhanger ending of Part 1 was done as a joke and there was never really any plans or expectations to make more Back to the Future films. Did you ever think about where Jennifer would be if there was a sequel? Did you ever think about that before the film became a huge success and more films were planned?
I didn’t. But, when we saw the film my mother elbowed me and said, “There is going to be a sequel.” Which is interesting because I didn’t do the sequels because my mom got really sick. Before anyone said anything to me or they even thought about a sequel she said that. My mom always knew things before they happened. She was just like that.
Did you believe her?
I didn’t think about it. She always used to say things. I was just so nervous to see myself on the big screen. It was my first movie.
Did your life change a lot after the film became a huge success?
It didn’t change my life much at all. I was on TV a lot. I was in TV Guide like every week. I starred in a TV series almost every year. I was in TV movies. I was in commercials. I was accustomed to being on television. It didn’t feel like it changed my life that much. I kept living my life. I went right back to work. I starred in Fast Times at Ridgemont High the TV series right after Back to the Future came out. I went straight to work and when you are working on set the whole world kind of disappears. The outside world didn’t really come into the on set environment. Looking back, I didn’t catch the news.
Do you wish you absorbed more of the phenomenon it was in 1985?
I was very, very hard on myself growing up. I was strict with myself. I was tough on myself. I was critical of myself. I never quite met my own expectations of myself.
You saw flaws in your performance?
I have only seen the movie 3 times to this day. I saw it when it came out and I have seen it at other events. I get so much joy watching other people. I get so much joy meeting fans. That is my pleasure. That’s where I feel the blessings. That’s what I am grateful for. I just have to hand it all to God and be open to what he wants for me. That’s how I live my life. I have taken away the judgment and the critical eye of myself. I’m living a beautiful life. I have so much gratitude for Back to the Future and the role of Jennifer.
Your mother’s illness made it impossible for you to appear in Back to the Future II & III. Have you ever tried watching the sequels? Is it difficult for you to watch them?
My mother wanted me to do the sequels. It’s completely my responsibility. She’s not alive anymore. She’s in heaven now. But, she wanted me to do the sequels. The filmmakers wanted me to do the sequels. It’s all on me. I chose not to. I saw the sequel in the movie theater. I had my popcorn. I was ducked down in my chair going, “That could of been me.” It was a fascinating time warp experience. Life is what it is.
I would not have had the son I have now if I had done it. I have had a store for 27 years that I would not of had. I have a business sense I would not have had because people would of kept running my life if I did the films. I realized I have a business mind and a strength I didn’t know I had.
When you decided to not appear in the sequels—how far along were they in the development process?
I don’t know. I’m not sure. The timing of it changed a few times. They were probably pretty close to filming though. I was told the story. It changed a few times. It changed from what I was told it was. It’s not up to me to say that it changed, but it definitely did.
Have you ever spoken to Elisabeth Shue?
I haven’t. I have been wanting to meet her forever.
You have had your store Armani Wells for many years now. Do you still enjoy having your own business?
I have had the store for 27 years. I was 25 when I opened it. I just focus on men. There are plenty of stores for women. It’s all high end clothing at discount pricing. It’s pre owned but perfect condition.
Would you ever return if they ever decided to make a Back to the Future 4?
I would be there with bells on. I hope I would be written in. I will hold Elizabeth’s hand—make us twins.